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Open defecation is becoming a thing of the past... isn't it?

Published on: 15/03/2013

Faecal sludge from millions of pit latrines around the world is being dumped indiscriminately. What can be done to stop this new sanitation challenge?

The second-generation sanitation challenge of postponed open defecation has been largely neglected in the sector. Bangladesh is not an exception, and it is an issue that we have to face and deal with.

BRAC and IRC are exploring different routes to deal with the problem of pits filling up.  Our starting point is that ‘waste is a resource in the wrong place’. In the case of faecal sludge from pit latrines, it is however necessary to provide some treatment after emptying to change the faecal sludge from a health hazard into a real resource; using treated faecal sludge from the pits as organic fertiliser is an efficient way of using the pit content in a profitable way. After a year of undisturbed storage, 15 to 20 kg of faecal sludge can be collected per pit for further treatment.

 The BRAC WASH programme is following three different paths:

  • Parts of the latrine are single pit latrines and hence the sludge from these pits is highly contaminated.  Action research on low-cost treatment technologies will be initiated soon. 
  • The second approach is to explore the technical and commercial feasibility of large-scale digestion of a mix of agricultural waste and faecal sludge to make use of both the energy in the agricultural waste and the faecal sludge as well as the nutrients.
  • The third approach is to build on existing small-scale practices.  In our initial research we found that in Bangladesh, like in many other countries, faecal sludge is being used by farmers already. Another example of reuse of faecal sludge is the case of Bangalore (see under Resources below).  We found similar practices in Bangladesh.  This approach specifically focuses on the productive use of faecal sludge from twin pit latrines.

This blog digs deeper than the last approach. Our trials conducted in 2012 confirmed that there is potential market for organic fertiliser from faecal sludge. Faecal sludge from twin pit latrines meets a number of the Bangladeshi standards for organic fertilisers, for example, in terms of nitrogen and phosphorus contents.

A first agricultural test indicates that faecal sludge potentially is more effective than cow dung, but further tests are needed to confirm the initial results.

A first agricultural test indicates that faecal sludge potentially is more effective than cow dung, but further tests are needed to confirm the initial results. However, microbiological tests showed that the faecal sludge contains disease-causing micro-organisms even after the faecal sludge has remained undisturbed in the pit for a period of 12 months. Thus, it is imperative that the faecal sludge is further treated after emptying to reduce the disease-causing micro-organisms before its use as an organic fertilizer.

There are thus a range of challenges to address.Here we look at some of these in more details.

Digbijoy Dey, micro-biologist and regional sector specialist from the BRAC WASH Programme, talked to us about some of the microbiological aspects of the project.

During the initial sampling of faecal sludge, the helminth content found in the faecal sludge is above World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. What is being done regarding this matter?

Treatment trials are being carried out. Short periods of sun drying have shown some good results, with the quantity of helminths greatly reduced.  We will further investigate how long period of sun drying is needed to comply to the WHO guidelines and whether this will be feasible in the Bangladeshi climate.

There were also problems meeting some of the Bangladeshi standards for organic fertilisers, such as potassium levels, humidity and pH. Have these issues been resolved?

Humidity has been lowered by sun drying and adding ash. Moreover, ash also acts as a buffer to adjust the pH. Ash addition will also increase the potassium content, so we think that we are doing well on the compliance to the Bangladeshi standards for organic fertilizers.

Sharmin Farhat Ubaid, programme manager at BRAC WASH, explained some of the challenges in the business development for using faecal sludge as organic fertiliser.

What is one of the main obstacles against using faecal sludge as organic fertiliser?

For faecal sludge as an organic fertiliser in Bangladesh, there is no legislative policy on this subject but we need to follow the terms and condition that developed for the organic fertiliser in Bangladesh policies.

However, a key issue is that of social and religious taboos against using human faecal waste as fertiliser. To overcome this problem, we are taking two approaches. One approach is through social motivation: we are speaking to farmers, fertiliser dealers and fertiliser producers. Another approach is through plot demonstrations to show the production in comparison with other fertiliser for marketing.

We have done successful field trials on cabbage, comparing the yields using different fertilisers, and there is an on-going field trial with rice.

We have done successful field trials on cabbage, comparing the yields using different fertilisers, and there is an on-going field trial with rice for which the results are due in March. As is often said: “seeing is believing”.  So, we are going to use our findings to demonstrate directly to the villagers to show them that using faecal sludge as organic fertiliser works and can be profitable by increasing the yields. Moreover, an important point to note is we have seen that although using faecal sludge as fertiliser is taboo, it is a practice that is commonly carried out by farmers but often spoken about openly.

Chemical fertilisers are highly subsidised. Can the organic fertilisers enter such a competitive market?

It will not be feasible to subsidise our organic fertiliser, but on the matter of chemical fertilisers, it is important to note that our organic fertiliser is not meant to compete with chemical fertilisers in the market, because a certain amount of chemical fertilisers will always be used. Rather, we hope to eventually reduce the use of chemical fertiliser through increased use of organic fertiliser by showing the benefits in the production; while remaining competitive and ensuring commercial viability of the micro-enterprises.

We will keep you updated on the results of our tests.

Nameerah Khan, Documentation Officer, BRAC WASH programme

26 February 2013

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